Tuesday, August 30, 2011

There Goes HP

Hewlett-Packard, the largest producer of PCs (17.5% share), plans to spin off its PC business. The company sold 14.9 million PCs last quarter, but evidently that’s not good enough. The PC sector has seen declining sales as tablets are attracting the consumer. With faltering growth, the PC business is suddenly worthless in the eyes of mega-corporations that only look at growth as a meaningful economic measure. Amusingly, HP has also given up on tablets. It introduced the TouchPad in July—and had already killed it off in August.

What do we call this sort of behavior? Having been tutored by that great historian of economic life Fernand Braudel (Civilization and Capitalism), we call it capitalism around here. Capitalism, far from the source of our collective well-being, is an organized form of indifferent selfishness and hard-eyed exploitation; its tendency is evil.

HP has a full-page ad in the NYT this morning, no doubt elsewhere too. In an almost insulting way (insulting to the ordinary intelligence), it attempts to present its proposed spin-off of PCs as an entrepreneurial move (rather than the shedding of a low-growth but huge business) and tries to spin this move into the suggestion that “now, more than ever, we are committed to the future of personal computing.” How can you be committed to a business by putting it on the block? I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you. Now, more than ever, I love you. Baloney, HP.

They’re supposed to be so sophisticated, all these mega-mega-wealthy useless exploiters. But the rest of the world isn’t crazy. It is just quiet as it gradually takes over.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Pyramid Revisited — Again

Back in June I presented a picture of the U.S. economy as a pyramid in two ways (link). The first was the conventional way, as we see pyramids in Egypt, showing the most basic elements at the bottom supporting, as it were, layers of economic activity above them. The second showed the same layers, but this time sized in proportion to their importance as part of the Gross Domestic Project. Here the pyramid looks more like a top spinning on a narrow tip, that tip being the most basic activities of Agriculture, Mining, Forestry, and Fisheries. That pictured showed the U.S. economy in 2010.

In a comment John Magee wrote as follows:

Now, wouldn’t it be interesting to compare that chart with previous decades? Offhand, I suspect that it looked a heck of a lot more like a pyramid in the 1950s.

I am pleased, today, to respond to John’s request. Once more I present the pyramids, this time with the 1950 version on top and the 2010 version on the bottom. Here is the picture…

…and, yes, John was right. The economy did look more like a pyramid sixty years ago, although even back then it was already resting on a rather narrow “basic” cluster of sectors.

What strikes the eye here is that the top three layers—thus those farthest removed from the nitty-gritty physical realities of life have all grown—and the more basic sectors have all shrunk, Manufacturing, Transportation, Power, Utilities, and Construction most dramatically.

What does such a change tell us about our fitness as a society? It tells us that we have become much more dependent on others for the basic goods by means of which real life proceeds. But in the process we’ve relinquished resources, know-how, and actual physical assets—have lost entire industries—to actors over-seas. In a peaceful, unchanging, and therefore predictable environment, that wouldn’t matter. But what loom ahead of us in this century are perhaps the most dramatic changes experienced by such a large global population: the drastic shrinkage of fossil fuels. Not that we’re at peace, bored with the same-old, same-old cornucopia disgorging wealth right on the mark. No. But what lies ahead is much more daunting than these troubled times.

We must become alert. And if we are asleep, wake up. We won’t survive on blackberries alone when the times begin to darken.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Enter Darth Vader

On the left, an aging Princess Hoover, on the right, a Bissell CleanView Helix.

Wow! The changes in how things appear! Dirt could not be overcome by kindness, gentleness, pastel colors, and muted elegance. Enter Darth Vader. Or, put another way, ain't it wonderful the way Science Fiction influences even our humble house-cleaning?

Sprucing Up the Infrastructure

A post on Patio Boat (here) made me wonder about the nation’s infrastructure—one possibly large investment in the collective that might require jobs to maintain—indeed to spruce it up. To give such a job a tangible dimension—and to compare the task that the private sector might also need to do—we need reliable statistics. Fortunately the Bureau of Economic Analysis, keeper of the nation’s books, provides data on assets. Better yet, it subdivides assets into useful categories. The source for what follows is a BEA facility (link), specifically Table 1.1 under Fixed Assets and Consumer Durables—but consumer durables don’t interest us here.

From among private- and government-owned fixed assets, I’ve selected nonresidential structures as the category to compare. In the private sector this category includes all kinds of nonresidential buildings, electrical power, railroads, pipelines, farms, mines, refineries, local transit, and other. In the public sector it also includes buildings (office, schools, hospitals, etc.) and highways, streets, conservation and development (that one includes parks, dams, flood control, and the like), sewer systems, water systems, and “other.” The other category, in the public sector, consists of electric and gas facilities, transit systems, and airfields—thus parts of the public infrastructure.

The interesting upshot of this is that the private and the public assets in this category are almost the same size. Here is a pie chart for 2010:

The totals here are $11 trillion in private fixed assets (55%) and $9.2 trillion in publicly-owned fixed assets (45%). The close relationship of one to the other is shown over some period of time in the following graphic:

What portion of these trillions might be called infrastructure, more narrowly conceived? 1996 data (the most recent published by the BEA in the necessary detail) suggests that of the total of $4.68 trillion in nonresidential structures in place that year, $2.48 trillion, or 62 percent, were other than buildings, thus highways/streets (the largest category) and the categories that follow it a couple of paragraphs above. If we apply that ratio to the 2010 numbers, infrastructure in place now, owned by government—and therefore not waiting for Market Forces to repair and to maintain it—is valued at $5.7 trillion dollars. That presents a fairly large task on which job-creating initiatives could be expended.

As the New Orleans disaster demonstrated a while back, our dams are not in good shape. Nor can we boast of the splendid upkeep of our highways, bridges, ports, sewers, parks—or indeed public schools. We have genuine work we could offer all those unemployed. It only takes the will.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Steve Denning on Manufacturing

Steve Denning, an author and consultant, has a four-part article on Forbes detailing the problems of manufacturing. The hat tip here goes to Joyce Simkin, a former colleague and one of our circle. She circulated the following link. If the first article resonates, the other three add more dimensions.

Denning’s conclusion, namely that management is to blame and that changes in management philosophy are also the solution is right enough, so far as it goes. The problem goes right down to our culture and our values, however; that sort of thing is much harder to fix because it demands that we all change at the personal level. The articles are wonderful documentation of how and why, in detail, we’re slipping and sliding into decay. I read them as sermons directed at me.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shale Hoopla — Careful!

A New York Times headline today says “Geologists Sharply Cut Estimate of Shale Gas.” The reference is to a press release by the U.S. Geological Survey (link) dated August 23, 2011. The first two paragraphs of that press release state:

The Marcellus Shale contains about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas and 3.4 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas liquids according to a new assessment by the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS).

These gas estimates are significantly more than the last USGS assessment of the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian Basin in 2002, which estimated a mean of about 2 trillion cubic feet of gas (TCF) and 0.01 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.
This certainly sounds like a huge increase in shale gas estimates, indeed like an 82 TCF increase between 2002 and 2011. The same press release, however, actually references the 2002 report. And if you follow their link (here), you find the following text under Resource Summary:

The USGS assessed undiscovered conventional oil and gas and undiscovered continuous (unconventional) gas. The USGS estimated a mean of 70.2 trillion cubic feet of gas (TCFG), a mean of 54 million barrels of oil (MMBO), and a mean of 872 million barrels of total natural gas liquids (MMBNGL).
The 2 trillion in this year’s release has turned into 70.2 TCF. Was that “2 trillion” a typo. In the 2002 report, furthermore, a detailed table also repeats the numbers with many more decimal points. We still have an increase between 2002 and 2011, but it is an increase of 13.8 TCF not an increase of 82 TCF.

So why does the New York Times headline a sharp cut in shale gas estimates? Well, the Times points at a July 2011 report by the Energy Information Administration in which that agency shows shale gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale of 410 trillion cubic feet. The Times reporter then quotes an EIA official (Philip Budzik) saying that the EIA will sharply revise its estimate downward. The casual reader will wrongly conclude that the EIA has been grossly inflating its numbers and that Budzik, an operations research analyst—not an agency spokesman—knows what he is talking about. The article also mentions testimony by the EIA’s acting director, Howard K. Gruenspecht, defending the EIA’s methods before Congress this July; why wasn’t Gruenspecht interviewed?

The Times reporter might have read both the USGS and the EIA reports with a little more care. He would have discovered (1) that the USGS release actually reports a large increase, but in a subcategory of shale gas, clearly labeled “undiscovered, technically recoverable,” as shown above; (2) that the USGS release might contain an error, and (3) that in the EIA report, where that 410 trillion figure is shown, the EIA clearly states that that number includes 56 TCF of “undiscovered resources estimated by the USGS.” This means that the EIA was only counting a part (56 TCF) of the USGS’s now 84 TCF figure, not all of it, and that the 410 trillion includes a lot of other categories of shale gas (see the note on top of page 5 of the EIA report (link)). The conclusion is that Mr. Budzik might have misspoken and that EIA will probably increase rather than decrease its shale gas estimate in the future. Many a slip twixt journalism’s cup and lip. Alas, it is stories in the “newspaper of record” that build the hype that forms our precious public opinion.

You wonder where that Marcellus Shale region is? Well, here is a map of it, from the EIA’s 2011 report:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

5/3 Name? A Mild Disappointment

When the Fifth Third Bank expanded to the Detroit area market a few years ago, I thought it was a new bank and frequently said, to myself and others, that its owners must surely have had a sense of humor. I’d imagined the formation of a new bank from some bank mergers, and I’d also imagined a management group sitting around discussing what to call it—one after the other of the participants complaining that First Bank of This and First Bank of That was such a bore, dime a dozen, etc. But then one of the party, on a flash of inspiration, more as a joke than anything else, said something like: “What the hell. What we ought to call it something like Fifth Something—Fifth Third—or something like that.” Then a sudden silence around the conference room table. Laughter. Then an upsurge of enthusiasm. “That’s it!” “Go man! Fifth Third!” “Yes, yes!”

Well. That turned out to be my imagination. But the subject came up again as we were driving north for a small vacation. I told myself that I would look it up. So I did.

Turns out, first of all, that Fifth Third is old. It was formed in 1908 by the merger of two Cincinnati banks, the Fifth National Bank and the Third National back. But there was a slight humor in the naming after all, as it turns out. Back then the idea of a prohibition of alcohol was gaining popularity. It would take another twelve years before it became law in 1920—and held sway until 1933. But in 1908, the idea, as I said, was already in the air, and the owners didn’t want to name the bank Third Fifth lest they lose tee-total customers. Fifth Third therefore the bank became. I’ll drink to that!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Getting Smart on Smartphones

The big news on the business page today, the New York Times, in my case, is Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobile, the latter having a 5.9 percent share of the global smartphone market. The paper quotes Larry Page by way of showing the motivation for this acquisition. “Computing is moving onto mobile,” said Google’s chief executive. “Even if I have a computer next to me, I’ll still be on my mobile device.” Smart move that, Larry—especially having a computer next to you. In the experience of all those over 55, roughly, when you find something of interest on your mobile, you need a computer next to you properly to see what you are kind of squinting at on that tiny screen.

The huge, explosive hoopla surrounding this event has moved me to do a little quick-and-dirty analysis by way of putting smartphone on my own screen, as it were. Don’t own one. How big is this market, I wondered. The first place to look, of course, is on Market Size, a little sliver of the family business. There (link) I learned that global sales in the third quarter of 2010 came it at 80.5 million units. Multiply that by four to get a size for global annual sales: 322 million units a year—until the market is saturated, of course.

The next question I had was market size in dollars. That turned out to be a more difficult exercise. In this market number of units dominates reporting, be it of the category itself or the market shares of the participants. PCWorld (those people are always on top of things) came to my rescue in this article dated July 15, 2009. Slightly dated, but good enough for blogging work. The article has an excellent table showing both the up-front and the continuing costs of owning a smartphone. The answer is that owning a smartphone, all costs counted, will run the user about $1,900 a year. Wow! I thought. Aren’t those things, uh, something like $200 a piece?

The answer is yes, they are. If you simply average the prices of units provided by eight companies surveyed by PCWorld, the average is $198.62. To this add about a $36 activation fee. If you take this cost and spread it out over two years (the usual contract), that will run you $117.32 a year. But to this we must add monthly charges for services of $140.62 or $1687 a year. The two added together come to $1,804 a year. PCWorld’s estimate is rounded up a bit, reflecting the larger market shares of the more expensive units.

All right. If we take $1,900 a year times 322 million units a year, the global market size in dollars comes in at $612 billion—that’s a large market. If we stick to hardware sales alone ($199 per unit), we get a $64 billion market—still plenty big.

Next question? Well, what is the U.S. share of that? Using a Nielsen estimate here, namely that 60 million Americans own smartphones, we get a total market for smartphones (hardware and services) of $114 billion.

The final question I posed myself was this one: What percent of total U.S. consumption does that figure represent? It turns out to be 1.1 percent of total U.S. expenditures on durable and nondurable goods plus services. The picture of that slice is shown in the graphic above. It’s small—but visible. All that just to be connected to the mighty feed even on the move? Watching movies on a walk? Apparently so.

Footnote: Smartphone are more than cellphones and only represent 19 percent of all such devices. As Market Size defines it, quoting PC Magazine, a smartphone is “a cellular telephone with built-in applications and Internet access. Smartphones provide digital voice service as well as text messaging, e-mail, Web browsing, still and video cameras, MP3 player and video and TV viewing.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Mystery of Rising Oil Reserves

On its web page showing world crude oil reserves (link), the Energy Information Administration shows a link to what it labels an Important Note. Here is that note in full:

Reserve estimates for oil, natural gas, and coal are very difficult to develop. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) develops estimates of reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal for the United States but does not attempt to develop estimates for foreign countries. As a convenience to the public, EIA makes available foreign fuel reserve estimates from other sources, but it does not certify these data. Please carefully note the sources of the data when using and citing estimates of foreign fuel reserves. [Typography as in the original.]

The note becomes significant when you look at the second table referenced there—the source of my data for the following graphic. A word or two about second chart I want to talk about. The curve on it shows total world crude reserves (1981-2009) in billions of barrels, right axis. The rest of the chart shows percent change in reserves in each of seven world regions. Thanks to some huge changes here and there, which is my actual focus today, these data are hard to see. To help you interpret the second chart better, I am first showing an enlargement of its first five years here:

In 1981 we have data for all regions except the Middle East; the Middle East neither added to nor lost reserves. The first blue bar is North America. Its reserves increased by 18.2 percent. The last region is Asia and Oceania; its reserves went up by 2 percent. Note that in 1982—and all following years, Eurasia’s reserves did not change; hence its bar is not visible. Notice that in 1983 the North American reserves registered a negative change; they fell 11.2 percent. Europe’s reserves declined by 7.3 percent. Identical data are shown in the second chart but for the period 1981-2009. Now for the second graphic. If you want to study the regions more closely, the link provided above will get you the data. Here I’m interested in the pattern, and especially unusual growth in selected years.

The most telling feature of this chart is that world reserves in actual barrels have had two major increases, the first in 1988-1990, the next in 2003. And going with these changes are a few large up-spikes in the regional estimates of proven reserves, along with smaller upticks. The BIG one, in 2003, is by North America. But when you look closer, you discover that the source of it is Canada. Between 2002 and 2003, Canada suddenly discovered 175 billion barrels of crude. Wow! Where was I in 2003 not to have heard the news? It must have fanned the globe like a wildfire! Or maybe I’d read the EIA’s Important Note already and just ignored the news? Something like that. In 2002 Canada had reserves of 4.9 billion barrels of crude. In 2003 it decided that its shale oil deposits ought to have some respect. They put them on the books officially. Now when I see the words “crude oil,” I think of gushers, wells, stuff that flows. I don’t think of rock. To see how far shale rock is from oil in your car, see this post here.

This then led me to investigate other interesting new spikes and up-ticks on this chart. They make you wonder. Indeed they cause you to want to read that EIA note again—wishing it said more. But international politeness causes EIA to murmur, almost inaudibly. Here then some annotations to the massive table from which the graph was wrought.
  • Ticks in 1981-1982 in North America came from Mexico. It added 25.7 billion barrels to its reserves in those years. The North American dip in 1983 (see first table) was also a Mexican revision.
  • In 1985, Kuwait improved its reserves in one year by 26 billion barrels.
  • In 1988 Iraq (this is still Saddam Hussein’s time), discovered 52.9 billion barrels it had overlooked until then.
  • That must have troubled the Saudis. In 1990 they upped their reserves by 85 billion barrels. Take that, Saddam!
  • In 2003, alongside the Canadian miracle, Lithuania also kicked up its reserves 11.4 billion. I wonder if that’s also shale. I’ll have to look. Just did. Yes it is.
  • In 2007, Kazakhstan found 21 billion, and I suspect some rocks there too, but I haven’t looked.
  • The last notable discovery came in Venezuela, in 2009. The country upped its crude reserves by 14.2 billion barrels. Well, that one gives me a little less concern than the others—either that or paranoia is fatiguing.
In any case, thanks for that Important Note, EIA. Hard numbers are always hard to come by, but, as advertisers firmly believe, false hope is better than none. And based on that, folks, why should you worry? Reserves are going up, up, up—even as our draw down grows by ever mightier leaps every year. Up, up, and away! Deep sigh. Thank the Lord for those infinitely fertile wells.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Snapshot: The Federal Reserve System

The Federal Reserve System is now in the news, not least divergent views within the system. The New York Times, this morning, for instance, brings a profile of Thomas M. Hoenig, the soon-to-retire president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. I’d read about Mr. Hoenig’s conservative and sensible views quite some time ago for the first time; they were unheeded outside and inside the Fed. He predicted the troubles we’re now seeing and has long been an advocate of severe management of risk. How? He advocates denying risk-taking banks government backing of their deposits. He also wants to reduce their access to emergency loans. Such is our celebrity culture, however, meaning so short our attention span, that only the Chairman of the Fed has any visibility in the media.

The Fed is rather an extensive and diverse sort of institution. Here a snapshot of its geographical extent, courtesy of this site maitained by the Federal Reserve Board:

The star emblem over Washington, DC shows the location of the seven-member Board of Governors. These are political appointees subject to Senate confirmation. The President appoints the Chair and Vice Chair from among sitting governors. They all have 14-year terms.

The Fed has 12 banks, marked on the map by black bullets. Five of the 12 bank presidents, alongside the seven members of the Board, form the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) where all the monetary policy is hammered out and decided by majority vote. One of the presidents, the president of the New York Fed, is a permanent member of the FOMC. That's the position Secretary Geithner held as his last job. The other four on that committee serve rotating one-year terms. Mr. Hoenig is not on the FOMC at present. Despite this limitation on voting, all presidents attend committee meetings and take part in the discussions.

Nine of the banks also have branches, marked by blue triangles on the map. The cities, shown by the district to which they belong, are these:

  •   4 (Cleveland):  Cincinnati, Pittsburgh
  •   5 (Richmond):  Baltimore, Charlotte
  •   6 (Atlanta): Birmingham, Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans
  •   7 (Chicago): Detroit (alas, we’re just a branch around here)
  •   8 (St. Louis): Little Rock, Louisville, Memphis
  •   9 (Minneapolis): Helena
  • 10 (Kansas City): Denver, Oklahoma City, Omaha
  • 11 (Dallas): El Paso, Houston, San Antonio
  • 12 (San Francisco): Los Angeles, Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle
I’m fond of the Fed, in a general sort of way. It points the way to rational governance in this high-tech, extremely complex age. The very fact that the Fed has problems getting its policies right—despite being well structured to do so—underlines our problems in other regions of governance where the structures are much more influenced by passions, ideology, and the new kind of bribery we call campaign contributions.

Years ago I did a job for the Minneapolis Fed. I invented, designed, and then programmed a game for the Apple computer. The game simulated the behavior of a central bank in the guise of a science fiction adventure called Return to Fraxla. Oh, the memories... The game was intended as an educational product to be distributed to schools—part of the Fed’s unfailing, and also always anxious efforts to reach out and to connect to a public that has MAJOR difficulties understanding this bastion of arcane mystery. One character in my Fraxla fiction was a little robot, QT. I had him playing the guitar, too, and right good music came out of the Apple II when you played the game...

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Hundred Years of Chevrolet

The actual anniversary will come on November 11, the day when auto-phenom William C. Durant (1861-1947) founded the company a hundred years ago. Durant also founded General Motors, by the way. He came from Boston, a high school drop-out, lumberyard hand, cigar peddler, carriage salesman. Durant got fired from General Motors when his efforts to purchase Ford in 1910 fell through because the banks would not back him. No matter. Durant founded Chevrolet in 1911. Within five years Chevrolet had produced sufficient profits so that Durant could acquire a controlling share in GM again. He got back in the saddle and brought Chevrolet back with him. So, in a sense (as I’ve always thought), Chevrolet is General Motors.

Now for that name. The name came from Louis Chevrolet (1878-1941), a Swiss immigrant to the United States, a famed race car driver. Chevrolet (the man) worked for Durant at Buick. They became friends. Louis was one of Chevrolet’s co-founders with Dr. Edwin R. Campbell (who was Durant’s son in law), and William H. Little, creator of the eponymous Little automobile. Louis and Bill Durant fell out in 1914—the dispute was about a car design. Durant bought Louis’ shares, but Louis left his name. Those were the days! That picture above, by the way, shows Louis Chevrolet, race driver, not Bill Durant, auto magnate; it comes from this GM site.

Chevrolet was also—my first car! I was born a Chevy, you might say, but married a Honda. Here she is, a 1952 Chevrolet Styline. My own looked very much as the car in this photograph. I bought it used while I was in Germany, in the Army—a truly splendid vehicle, lovely to look at, tight, swift, fast, roadworthy, all that a young man could wish for. I’d already sold it by the time Brigitte and I met, but borrowed it back so that we could drive it on our wedding day. (Alas, that was a practical, not a romantic business; we needed to pick up some documents many miles away; but it has become a romantic memory).

It’s been a good hundred years, Chevrolet, of which I’ve shared seventy five. The year I was born, Chevy turned twenty-five.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Strong-ARMed by the Subprime Bubble

Thanks to another econ site we follow around here, I became aware of the superb services rendered to data mavens by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank’s FRED program (FRED stands for Federal Reserve Economic Data); the site is accessible here. More specifically, Modeled Behavior, the econ blog, alerted me to construction data on FRED in this interesting post, featuring expenditures on churches; check out the downward slide. That in turn led me to see if I could find data on residential construction. Yes. I found them. That led to more investigations into the roots of our current economic problems—and FRED once again obliged. The three graphics presented below come from that site—and shown, although re-graphed by me using Excel, in the same style used by the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

My subject is the Subprime Bubble. It is—if not a singular then an instructive—indicator of what happens when greed, vanity, and ambition align with flagging oversight in a hot, free economy to produce a great storm that ravages the innocent and guilty alike for years on end.

The roots of the Great Recession where “innovations” in real estate practices. The first of these was the introduction of adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs). You borrow at a low rate—thus you can realize your “dream” (a God-word of our times) before you can really afford it. The rate is adjustable upward, if interest rates rise; but ARMs were not (and could not be) designed to raise your income automatically as well—therefore, if rates spiked, you could lose your house. ARMs allowed more people to buy homes—read increased demand.

The next innovation was subprime lending. But what does subprime mean? The word is deceptive because sub means below. If you are careless, you might assume that subprime refers to the interest rate and means lower than then prime rate. It means the exact opposite. Subprime lending means lending at higher rates to people who are sub—thus less qualified to borrow. Those with adequate assets and income qualify for the lower prime rate; its prime, desirable, because it’s lower. Subprime borrowers can only get mortgages at higher interest rates.

Subprime lending was much touted as a service to the young, the needy, and those who had been discriminated against for lack of qualifications. As subprime lending took hold—guess what? more people came into the market, demand increased—and pushed up prices. The first graphic shows what happened as a consequence:

Home prices began a precipitous climb. The graph shows Standard & Poor’s 10-city home price index, which goes back to 1987 and is the best-known measure of home pricing. S&P’s 20-city index is slightly lower but shows the same pattern; it doesn’t go back as far. Rapidly, indeed dramatically appreciating real-estate values, triggered by these “innovations,” also fuelled it. With property values reliably rising, people thought they could easily refinance if they got in trouble—the underlying asset, after all, had appreciated. The bubble peaked in May of 2006 and soon came a precipitous drop in home prices. This, of course, chilled the market and resulted in…

…a steep rise in delinquencies. They stood at 1.53 percent of all mortgages in the second quarter of 2006, peaked at 11.36 percent in the first quarter of 2010, and were still at 10.52 percent of mortgages a year later in the first quarter of 2011. Add this another “innovation,” namely the securitization of mortgage debt. I’ve posted on that complex subject here on the old LaMarotte under the title of “Let’s Build a Pyramid.” What securitization did was to spread the liabilities of subprime lending into the financial system. All manner of instruments were sliced, diced, tranched, and sold—secured by questionable mortgages. When the nature of those mortgages became clear, the finance system began to quiver and shake. Not surprisingly, all this resulted in—recession. A Great Recession. And recessions have consequences. One of these, most closely associated with real estate is …

… a sharp down-turn in residential construction. That began in April of 2006, right on time, and foreshadowed the recession that would begin a year later. Such curves mean loss of jobs. And when we consider that housing, as an industry, is a fundamental support of economic well-being, the drop you see here signals radiations which we feel now and expect to feel for some years to come.

The Hidden Hand? Well, it can also slap you, and real hard. But this didn’t have to happen. It happened because, for that Hand to be Hidden, the Eye has to be Closed.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Template Tedium

Sorry about these too frequent changes in this blog’s appearance. Ever since I moved LaMarotte from WordPress to Blogger, I’ve had problems of one sort or another. I made the move because WordPress began running ads whereas Blogger leaves me the right to advertise or not to, which I appreciate. But it seems to me—and I am not alone in noticing this—that Google might be experiencing troubles with some of its newer templates. The old templates, of which this one, Scribe, was one, are no long available—but they still run. If you have a saved copy of it, you can apply it. My hope is that the old will work better the new. That often is the case. If not, other experiments are still ahead.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Government’s Prayer: Please Consume!

The Federal Reserve Bank yesterday announced, although with some demurrals, that it would keep the interest rate at zero or near zero into 2013. Why? Because the governors want people to invest. But does investment drive growth—or is it the other way around? What low interest rates signal is that cheap money will be available—and the markets liked that message. The Dow rebounded as soon as traders actually grasped this fact.

In his last speech President Obama urged renewal of the payroll tax cut (on which more here) into 2012. Why? Because he believes that the economy needs stimulus. Thus a few more dollars in the pockets of consumers will make them go out and consume. Other Keynesian economists wring their hands because huge budget cuts and a debt ceiling that must be lifted like every quarter from now on (it seems) against huge opposition, signals that stimulus will not flow. The prevailing view here is Paul Krugman’s: Stimulate and then, when things are up and running again, then worry about deficits.

This made me curious about consumption. Just how are we doing on the spending front. Herewith a graphic that shows Personal Consumption expenditures from 1990 through the second quarter of 2011.

The chart is rather informative. We’ve had three recessions in this period. As the curves show, personal consumption did not flag through the first two. At most, in two of its subcategories (nondurable and durable goods) it flattened just a little. But in the Great Recession, another story. There we see a quite visible dip in consumption overall as well as in every subcategory. But since the last one ended, consumption has resumed—if, to be sure, from a new low. The one exception is durable goods.

On this chart you see markers and numbers showing personal consumption in the second quarter of 2007, thus a time when things were still normal. The numbers at the extreme right show consumption in the second quarter of 2011, the last data point charted. They are all higher than the values clocked in the corresponding quarter of 2007 except durable goods. That category has not recovered and is still below the 2007 level. Negative growth.

Now it is interesting to note that in 2011 32 percent of that category is motor vehicles and parts, and that that sub-subcategory had the most negative results of all. In 2007, motor vehicles/parts represented 33.9 percent of expenditures. Two other categories, furnishings and household equipment and recreational goods and vehicles were also negative. The only redeeming sub-sub was other durable goods not further detailed.

Gasoline and other energy goods fall within the nondurable category. You have to have gasoline. In 2011, compared to 2007, people spent less on food and clothing and footwear and more on gasoline and other nondurable goods. In the services category, shifts between sub-sub categories were toward more expenditures on health care (the largest increase) and on food services and accommodations (eating out, in other words). All other categories, including the largest, housing and utilities, lost share.

We see significant and interesting shifts in categories. In the durables category, people are not buying cars, appliances, and furniture. In the nondurables category, gasoline dominates the picture. In services health care—a sector that is showing job growth—is the important category.

But what Personal Consumption expenditures exclude is purchases of housing (except rentals). The odd thought occurs: Is owning the family home the real root of the American Dream? And is the appreciation of that property the root of confidence? And when that sector starts tottering, does a rude awakening from the Dream cause people to purchase what they need—and not much more than that?

And that in turn suggests another thought. If the home has lost its value (never mind if you actually lost your home), does that improve your credit? And how much of the growth in durables depends on credit? Most of it, it seems to me. People are having problem borrowing, and this despite a financial market awash in cash. Why? The lenders have also been chastened. All of these factors play a role especially in the durables category—the category where jobs are not growing with any visible vigor at all.

The data shown here are available from Table 2.3.5 of this BEA source.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Transportation Modes

Transportation statistics, published by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, tend to lag reality by several years—echoing, perhaps, the broad public interest in this fundamental economic activity. The public’s eyeballs are on cell phones and pads, not on the big roaring trucks—and the near-invisible barges and rails. Today I present some data for 1993 and 2007—and 2007 seems so yesterday, doesn’t it. But the trends are important. And with minds now focused on the ephemeral (the Dow, the Debt Limit), it might be a nice moment to remember that some 12.5 billion tons of goods are moved in this country every year—by trucks, rails, barges, air, and pipeline—and that this tonnage is moved a staggering 3.3 trillion ton-miles. A ton-miles is one ton moved one mile, and the huge figure therefore suggests that on average every ton of freight moves nearly 267 miles.

This graphic shows the shares, in percent, of total tonnage moved in 1993 and in 2007, by modes of transport. The dominant transportation here, based on weight alone, is intercity trucking. It commanded a 70 percent share of all tonnage. Note, please, that every other mode, with the exceptions of pipelines and multi-mode transport, lost share to trucking. The difference between Trucking and the nearest other mode, Rail, being a huge difference of 55.2 percent tells us that, for all practical purposes we transport everything by truck. But in the transportation sector a more meaningful measure is the ton-mile, fusing both weight carried and distance.

Most freight classified as “multi-mode” falls under parcel deliveries by freight services or the Postal Services. Another instance would be rails carrying already-loaded trucks. “Unknown mode” means that the U.S. Department of Transportation had real data on hand but not enough information to classify the transporation system used by mode of carrier.

What we note in the second graphic is that trucking and rail are close to equal in their share of ton-miles. Indeed, rails just beat trucking by a very slender 0.1 percent. Data for pipelines, while BTS does have them, are not published because of high sampling variablity. The data shown account for 98 percent of total ton-miles in 1993 and 98.6 percent in 2007; the missing points are probably due to pipelines. The gain experienced by trucking that we see above, between 1993 and 2007, is greater than the gain experienced by rail. And most troubling is the more than halving of water-transportation’s share. Why does that matter? Well, in terms of energy consumption and environmental protection, the best mode of transportation is by barge, then by rail, and finally by truck. Therefore any gains by trucking represent a negative from a perspective of long-range sustainability. To be sure, commodities like grains, sand, rock, and liquids travel by water—and the loss of water-transportation’s share indicates and change in total consumption of goods. We move more manufactured and packaged than commodity goods. And the closer to sale the freight is (meaning ready to sell to consumers in a store) the more speed and time matter. And barges are slow.

In about four years or so—the Department of Transportation is as slow as the barges—I might be able to bring you numbers for 2011—but by that time 2011 will seem so yesterday.

The data source here is the BTS (link). Look for Table 1-52.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Employment Change: A Longer View

While we’re on the subject of employment change, I thought I get the data (here) and graph monthly employment change for a longer period—the last twenty-plus years. The graphic above, with recessionary periods marked, is the result. In this period we’ve had three recession with increasing durations, and increasingly deep dips in employment, most dramatically in the 2007-2009 period. The official dates of that one are from the first quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2009. The graphic shows that employment losses and recessions do not always coincide neatly. Recessions begin when the GDP stops growing. In the 1990-1991 recession, falling employment signaled the recession four months ahead of time. In the 2001 recession, employment still grew in the first month. In the “great” recession employment growth was present in 10 of the first 13 months. In none of the three cases shown here was employment recovery after the recessions “symmetrical,” meaning increasing in the same way as it dropped during the recession. A zigzagging pattern is “normal.” Indeed, fluctuations mark periods of strong growth as well, although month-to-month changes are typically always in the positive range.

Jobs by Sector, June-July 2011

If we look sector by sector, in the June to July period this year all gains have been in the private sector and the largest offsetting losses in the public: total gains of 154,000 jobs were offset by 37,000 jobs lost in government, 4,000 in the finance sector and 1,000 in Information, the last two both private sector activities.

The private sector with the largest gains was Education and Health Services. The large gains within this sector came in the Health Services category. That category (and occupations within it) are almost guaranteed growth in the foreseeable future because the huge Baby Boom segment of the population is aging. Professional and Business Services came in second, with increases of 34,000 jobs. This can be interpreted as a weakness, rather than as a strength, in the economy: industry is hiring services, not adding to its own employment. Weak performance by Construction and Manufacturing underlines this weakness.

General weakness in economic activity, exacerbated by the debt limit crisis which certainly sapped confidence, is reflected in the job losses experienced by the finance sector, shedding jobs for the second month in a row. BLS reported 15,000 jobs lost in that sector in June—which it adjusted further downward, to 18,000 this month. July’s losses of 4,000 may also be revised downward in the August release.

Within the government sector, the Federal government gained jobs (+2,000). The largest losses came in state government (-23,000). Of the negative job change at the local level (16,000 jobs lost) 12,000, thus most, came from education at the local level. Have we had a sudden die-off of school-age children? Was there a huge surge in our “output” per teacher?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Employment: Update July 2011

The monthly news on employment change is good news. We needed that. The economy gained 117,000 jobs in July. But the news are actually better. Revisions to May and June data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics also added additional jobs by upward revisions of 28,000 for each month. This sort of thing happens. Last month we had severe downward revisions, this month we went the other way.

The two graphics showing month-to-month changes and a summary of recovery from the Great Recession follow:

The data for these charts comes from the monthly BLS press release (link).

Thursday, August 4, 2011

When Government is Handy

If you are interested in the dreary aspects of bank bailouts and the like, you can track the numbers on a website maintained by the Real Economy Project of the Center for Media and Democracy (link). The site tracks expenditures by the Federal Government under the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). The data are updated monthly. Significant detail, by agency, program within agency, purpose, and progress toward repayment are posted there. The data shown are peer-reviewed by economists at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. These are pretty good numbers, not rant-hype.

I am showing here a kind of summary as of July 2011:

What this graphic shows is that in a period of about two-and-a-half years the federal government disbursed or made available in other forms nearly $4.8 trillion in various ways to keep the financial system from collapsing. Of that total $3.2 trillion has been paid back (or the government liability has been removed), leaving $1.5 trillion still owing to the public.

Brutal barbarian that I am, I favored, back then, letting the too-big-to-fails fail rather than vast bailouts. Yes. That would have threatened at least a portion of our life-savings; we lost a good third of them anyway. I also think that the sky would not have fallen if Goldman, Merrill, AIG, and all the rest of the “exposed”—exposed to the mortgage crisis—had joined Enron in falling over the cliff. The responsible speculators would have lost a little of their wealth as well. Not this way.

In any case, when things to really sour, Government turns out to be handy. But when it comes to bailing out the speculators, nobody is talking deficits. But the government doesn’t just happen to have nearly $5 trillion of cash lying around idle. Therefore these bailouts had to come from somewhere. They were borrowed. So who caused the deficits? Was it Government or was it the venal private sector?

Our national “dialogue” has turned stark crazy. We can’t pay our FAA inspectors. We’re thrilled over trillion-dollar cuts to basic programs for the little people. But this morning’s New York Times tells me that even with huge mark-ups, luxury goods marketers can’t keep their shelves stocked because demand for luxury goods is soaring. How about a pair of Christian Louboutin “Bianca” platform pumps for $775? And hurry, please, I don’t want to keep the limo waiting. You know the problems one has with domestic help these days…

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stimulus v. Confidence

Under the Tax Relief Act of 2010, individuals get a 2 percent reduction in their Social Security contribution to payroll taxes. That contribution is 6. 2 percent of gross earnings. In 2011, the deduction is 4.2 percent. This applies to earnings up to and including $106,800. Thus a person earning $45,000 would have paid $2,790—but in 2011 pays only $1,890. This amounts to $900 or, taken at a monthly rate, $75 a month.

I bring this up because the administration is pushing for an extension of this tax cut to 2012—in the name of stimulus. The presumption is that people will rush out and spend that $75 a month, lift consumption, and therefore create jobs.

Now in my mind Stimulus does not stand alone, as it were. It is intimately associated with Confidence. Pushing for a stimulus measure without improving public confidence—indeed by eroding it in wave after wave of public events that signal doom ahead—has only one absolutely predictable consequence. In this case it means that the Social Security Trust Fund (so-called) is forgoing revenues. In today’s environment, the public is at least as likely (1) to pay down still staggering credit card debt or (2) put that $75 in savings against the possibility of losing the job, or the necessary second job.

The minor stimulus the administration is advocating is, it seems to me, way more than matched by the defunding of government that it cannot stem. Meanwhile confidence is low—and zigzagging like employment gains. Here the temporally near-term and the longer-range view of confidence:

The first shows the Consumer Confidence Index from mid-1997 to January 2011. This index is produced by the University of Michigan and published by the Conference Board. The straight line is the trend of confidence over a 14-year period. Notice, please, that the "leveling-off" after each drop has taken place at a lower level—which is that supports the downward trend.

The second, which I have from an April 2003 paper from the Regional Economist, a publication of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank (link), shows us much more history of confidence using the same series, going back to the 1960s and ending in 2003. What that chart shows is that we’ve had periods of very low confidence twice before, once in 1973-1974 and again in 1993 or thereabouts. Current levels, not shown on that chart, are matching those.

You can measure confidence in surveys, but the feel is the thing. The current level of confidence, it seems to me, is lower than any earlier periods’. That measly stimulus of $75 a month, or much less for many, does not automatically cause the kind of spending-frenzy the administration really wishes to achieve. What we’re thinking, here in the boonies, is that a trillion in cuts is bound to cause massive layoffs somewhere. And that we have unpaid FAA employees inspecting things for safety because Congress has denied them the dough.

Designed for Stasis

It struck me this morning brewing coffee (one of those cases of being thunderstruck by the obvious) that the minimum number of judges needed to decide lower-court cases is three—and that they always decide cases unanimously or by a two-thirds majority. Having recovered from discovering that two-thirds of three is two, I went on musing about majorities and their meanings.

We need three-fifth majorities to pass any law in Congress—the proportion required in the Senate to limit debate, thus to overcome the filibuster. That’s 60 votes to reach cloture, lower than the 67 needed to over-ride a presidential veto. But neither party currently has sufficient votes for either—cloture or an override. This increases negative power in government. The president can certainly say No and get his way, but that’s a negative, isn’t it? The minority party can deny the majority the opportunity to vote by filibuster. The distribution of power in the senate is technically 53 to 47 in favor of the Democrats—but with the caution that of the 53 one is an independent (Bernie Sanders) who’s always willing to vote way, way, way to the left, so make that 52 for sure; and the other is Joe Lieberman, who is not reliably a Democrat, so make that 52-and-a-half. In any case—51, 52, 53—those numbers are far from 60 or 67 votes—unless the issue is uncontested. Stasis.

To this we add the requirement that two-thirds majorities are required for proposing constitutional amendments by both houses, and two-thirds of states must ratify these amendments no doubt by two-thirds votes in their own legislatures.

In a recent post I suggested that economies behave like bio-phenomena. In a very similar way, government decision-making is almost as if by design very conservative, powerfully biased towards equilibrium, thus toward doing nothing unless we absolutely have to. Arguably parliamentary systems are more responsive in that governments live or die by maintaining simple majorities when votes of confidence are moved. But one could counter by saying that the U.S. form—in which the executive cannot simply be removed by a failed vote of confidence—is more stable by preserving the executive function no matter what—until it’s Time.

In this sort of brown study—set off by brewing my brown coffee—I’m inclined to look for parallels. Thus I went back to refresh my memories about neurons. How do they reach decisions? Well, if you think that Congress is a complicated mess, our neurons’ decision-making process is something even more wondrous. More actors are involved. But I had to smile when I saw that, under stimulus to act, the neuron activates a pump. This pump then causes three sodium ions to leave the cell while replacing them by two potassium ions. There we have it again, I cried silently, the two and the three, and the three-fifth rule, all present and accounted for. In this process the negative voltage of the neuron diminishes, for a millisecond, from minus 70 millivolts to maximally plus 30 millivolts, and when that happens the neuron votes Yes. Otherwise it votes No by doing the right honorable…nothing. Stasis also rules the cells—unless, of course, real danger threatens.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Defense is not only the largest expense of government but also the function with unfailing political support, from either party. As in the body, so in the body politic. We starve slowly but we’re quick to flee or fight.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Clash of Philosophies

August 2 and soon a Senate vote will lift the ceiling. Throughout this surreal crisis, I’ve been presenting the simple facts and trying to say, directly or by quoting others, what the simple truth of the matter is: revenues fall short of expenditures.

That’s the technical expression of it. The more basic problem has been philosophical (as always). We’re engaged in a massive clash of cultures. One side views government as if it were something not only external to the collective but, in addition, something evil. The other still operates on the assumption that government is simply one aspect of the collective life. Neither side is able to muster the necessary and overwhelming majority required to carry out its agenda. As a consequence we’re forced to undergo surreal crises, one after the other. The by now traditional left (traditional because it reflects humanity’s long-term collective experience—namely that government is here to stay) cannot pass effectively legislation to match modern ways of governing populations by providing them basic human rights—such as effective health care. The reactionary right cannot shed its love-affair with global power which demands abnormal expenditures on the military. It does not have the real power to cut budgets. It must reach for indirect tools to create crises. The first to discover that separating revenue on the one hand and its complement, expenditures or outlays on the other can create massive deficits was President Reagan. He thought that that would work in due time to shrink government. But that didn’t work. Now we’ve progressed to the next stage—creating deficits but trying by law to prevent their funding by borrowing.

What the Right has managed to achieve is to stop revenues growing alongside expenditures. We are thus supposed to solve our problem by breathing out—but never breathing in. Doesn’t seem to work. The problem is that the collective includes government, and if government is supposed to die, the collective will also suffer.

Herewith some charts to make the point once again.

Note here that revenues and outlays nicely match each other (not perfectly but closely, from 1950 through 1981, Reagan’s first year in office. Thereafter the gap widens with a brief interruption during Clinton’s second term. Then deficits start growing as two events coincide—the war on terror and further drastic tax cuts under Bush. Next comes the mortgage meltdown, more war, and the very weak presidency of Barack Obama.

This chart shows the percent that deficits and surpluses represent of outlays. In this 62-year period, we only experienced eight years of surplus. In the first 25 years of this period, the deficit stayed below 10 percent of outlays in all but three years. In the 1980s and forward, the deficit bars dip lower except under one president, Clinton.

Evidently we will keep spending. But the Right’s view is that spending is only legitimate on military budgets. Militarism has killed just about every culture on record. To load that burden on the weakest elements of the collective—the children and the elderly—is not just surrealism. It’s crazy.

Data for the graphic are from the Office of Management and Budget here, Table 1.1.